What is Atheism?

There's a common misunderstanding when talking about atheism that has reared its ugly head in the stoic philosophy forum I participate in. This post seeks to identify the problem and work toward greater understanding between those who believe and those who do not.

When an atheist describes his/her beliefs, he/she will typically use the phrase, "I do not believe in God."

When a theist argues with an atheist, he/she will typically use the phrase, "That atheist believes that there is no God."

The second statement is not an accurate translation of the first. Theism, in its many varieties, is a positive belief that there is a god or gods. Atheism is properly understood as a lack of this belief, not a positive belief in the non-existence of god.

As Dawkins notes in his book, The God Delusion, Christians are atheist with regard to Zeus, Vishnu, Tiamat, et al. The atheist just goes one god further.

The caricature of an atheist as someone who is sure that god does not exist makes it easy for the theist to beat up the straw man argument that both sides are equally unprovable. "I can't prove God exists, but you can't prove God doesn't exist." Then the theist will say that both positions are a matter of faith. The fallacy is that the theist is claiming that a deity exists without any evidence. A rational person suspends belief in the absence of evidence. I can't prove that leprechauns or the Flying Spaghetti Monster don't exist, but that doesn't make belief in them any less irrational.


Michael Krahn said...


I am a Christian who is writing a blog series on Dawkins' book "The God Delusion".

Join the conversation at:


eudaimonia said...

Good point. There is a distinction made sometimes between "strong atheism" and "weak atheism."

See here:

Although I don't care for the terms "strong" and "weak" in this context, it's a useful distinction.

Bruce Godfrey said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Bruce Godfrey said...

There are, additionally, logical methods of disproving the existence of some posited gods. If there is no way that a god (or other concept) can exist logically as posited, one need not examine evidence to disprove its existence. Quite arguably, such "evidence" does not even fit the definition of evidence: that which makes a proposition more likely or less likely to be true, as the proposition is dead on arrival for the universal set of all conceivable evidence and no evidence "moves the needle."

Many such logically failing god-concepts may be susceptible to logical, if not factual, improvement through minor modifications in definitions.

Mister Thorne said...

Methinks you make a false distinction.

Consider this statement:

"The gods exist."

The theist says the statement is true; the atheist says it is false.

The person who shrugs his shoulders and says the proposition is undecidable is not an atheist, but an agnostic.

Mr. X said...

The person who shrugs his shoulders and says the proposition is undecidable is not an atheist, but an agnostic.

If the person says that the statement is, by it's nature, undecideable, then yes, he is an agnostic. If the person has not decided, then he may arguably be an agnostic, but is likely to be either (a) an atheist agnostic or (b) a theist agnostic.

The former doesn't know, but assumes that there is not a god without evidence. The latter doesn't know, but assumes that there is a god without evidence.

Mister Thorne said...

When it comes to the existence of the gods, you've got three choices:

1. you believe they do exist; you're a theist

2. you believe they don't exist; you're an atheist

3. you have no opinion; you're agnostic

There is no other option. Nor is there such a thing as an atheistic agnostic or a theistic agnostic.

I know those who like to make a distinction between strong/weak atheist, but it seems as if they're just not hip to agnosticism.

Mr. X said...

There is no other option. Nor is there such a thing as an atheistic agnostic or a theistic agnostic.

The difference comes down to how you live your life. Do you live like there might be a God or not?

You may not know one way or another, but some people live out their unknowing lives like there isn't a God and other people live like there is.

If you want to use different words to describe that, that's fine, but there is a difference.

Mister Thorne said...

The law of trichotomy says there are three options and only three. Atheists -- otherwise prone to leaning on logic -- suggest there are other possibilities.

Consider this proposition:

"There is gold on Mars."

You've got three choices:

1. you agree with the statement.

2. you disagree with the statement.

3. you have no opinion.

Sure, some people might strongly agree or disagree with the statement, but they still wind up in just one of three categories. There are no other options (assuming nobody -- at this point -- knows that there is gold on Mars).

Nobody knows if the gods exist. It's a question of belief. I don't know about you, but I find many who say they do believe in one god, but who act as if they don't (or don't believe in what they say they believe about what that god wants/expects/demands).